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Pots & pans: Enduring increased criticism is part of today’s game

Taunts from fans, former and current players follow athletes no matter where they go

When the NBA regular-season begins Tuesday, players, coaches and team executives must exorcise demons. Last season’s bad plays and bad decisions must be forgotten for anything memorable to occur this season.

At the same time, the players must steel themselves against the media mobs, the body snatchers who seek to invade the athletes’ privacy. Those mobs recast great players and nice guys as villains and tar and feather them with the most damning label in big-time sports: “Can’t win the big one,” which is a hellhound on the trail of elite sports figures who haven’t won championships.

Today’s players must also be ready for the retired greats to criticize from their sports graves – boo!

Last year Stephen Curry, the NBA’s most enchanting player, was haunted by remarks from Oscar Robertson, a Hall of Fame guard in Cincinnati and Milwaukee. Robertson said that poor player defense and poor defensive coaching helped explain Curry’s magic. Even New York Knicks president Phil Jackson, one of the NBA’s greatest coaches, barged into the conversation. Jackson likened Curry, the league’s MVP, to Mahmoud Abdul-Rauf, a guard who scored about 15 points a game in a career that lasted from 1990 to 2001. Abdul-Rauf never made an NBA All-Star team.

This cross-generational criticism isn’t limited to basketball. Soccer’s Diego Maradona said that Lionel Messi lacked the strong personality he needed to lead Argentina’s national team. Maradona has led Argentina to a World Cup championship. Messi has not.

Wayne Gretzky, long hailed as a gentleman and his sport’s greatest player, doesn’t send slap shots at individual players. Instead, “The Great One” decries today’s NHL hockey for its lack of dynamism and scoring. And earlier this month, Brett Favre suggested that Tony Romo accept being displaced by rookie quarterback Dak Prescott of the Dallas Cowboys. Romo, Favre said, should wait, as if he were a vulture, for Prescott to falter so he could reclaim the starting job he lost when he went down to another injury. I have difficulty imagining Favre taking similar advice when the Hall of Famer was trying to hold onto the starting job in Green Bay, where Aaron Rogers served as his reluctant backup.

Criticism across generations or eras isn’t new, either, or limited to basketball. Nearly 100 years ago Ty Cobb, the greatest baseball player of the dead ball era, kicked dirt on Babe Ruth, whose home run power and charisma shattered the “scientific game” that Cobb embodied in major league baseball.

What’s new and different is how much money yesterday’s stars, the ghosts of seasons past, can make lampooning today’s stars.

Pound for pound, Charles Barkley was one of the NBA’s greatest players. And that’s saying something. During his Hall of Fame career in Philadelphia, Phoenix and Houston, “The Round Mound of Rebound” thrilled fans with end-to-end dashes on the basketball court. Nevertheless, the powerful forward ended his NBA career without a championship.

Today, he’s one of America’s leading sports pundits. He’s reached a pundit’s nirvana: His popularity transcends consideration of how often or rarely his observations and predictions prove accurate. He jabs at today’s players, just as he used to take a jab step to begin a bull-rush baseline drive that ended in a rim-rattling dunk. For Barkley, today’s jabs at today’s players are all part of a day’s work, all part of the fun.

Still, during Barkley’s career, the sports scribes sometimes called him an exemplar of what was wrong with NBA players. Now his glass house is hidden high on a hill, his youthful indiscretions— including accidentally spitting on a child at a game — put away in an attic. Yet, Sir Charles throws stones.

He takes Kevin Durant to task for trying to “cheat” his way to a championship. Durant’s offense: He left the Oklahoma City Thunder and joined the Golden State Warriors via free agency, his right as a player.

After all, in joining the Warriors, who won a record 73 regular-season games last season, Durant seeks to avoid Barkley’s fate: retiring as a great player defined, in part, by what he didn’t do. You’d think Barkley wouldn’t be too harsh when talking about Durant. You’d think Barkley, of all people, could put himself in Durant’s place, see the younger man’s face as his own, when he looks in the mirror.

Perhaps the mirrors in Barkley’s glass house are made of stone.

A graduate of Hampton University, Jeff Rivers worked for Ebony, HBO and three daily newspapers, winning multiple awards for his columns. Jeff and his wife live in New Jersey and have two children, a son Marc and a daughter Lauren.